A native Californian, Steffens studied psychology in Europe following graduation from the University of California at Berkeley. When he returned to the United States, he found work as a reporter for the New York Post. In 1901 he became managing editor of McClure’s Magazine, a periodical later renowned for its muckraking exposes. When Steffens became depressed at being trapped behind a desk, his publisher, S. S. McClure, took pity on him and told him to go out into the country to find a story in 1902. Steffens responded with his famous series detailing municipal corruption, “The Shame of the Cities.”
Steffens remained with McClure’s until 1906, when he left to start a new magazine, American, along with other muckraking journalists. His association with American lasted only two years. Because he was a progressive socialist, Steffens’ radical views created conflicts with his more conservative colleagues. After he visited the Soviet Union in 1919, he wrote “I have seen the future and it works.” For many editors, this statement confirmed that Steffens was communist and led to a blacklisting of his writings in the United States. Steffens remained influential in intellectual circles, particularly in Europe, where he associated with writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, published in 1931, was widely read for many years, but fell out of favor during the Red Scare of the 1950’s.